With its history-making Oscar wins last weekend, Bong Joon Ho's Parasite has finally gotten the United States to consider Korean cinema more seriously. It's a category that has cranked out films just as smart and stylish as Parasite for years, with similar levels of dark humor and social commentary, and one well worth diving into for those who find Bong’s work even remotely intriguing.
And while Parasite got its much-deserved recognition, Korean cinema’s current international moment might also be a chance to reexamine a similarly perfect work that went deeply under-acknowledged: a film so lush and provocative—so full of unexpected twists and dark turns—that it’s a mystery why it didn’t make more of a splash and absolutely sweep the 2017 awards season. That film is The Handmaiden by famed director Park Chan-wook, for whom brutality and black humor are hallmarks.
Based on the Victorian-era novel Fingersmith but set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, The Handmaiden is a revenge story rooted in class tension and political conflict. A con man who dubs himself "Count Fujiwara" and Sook Hee, a poor pickpocket accomplice, join forces to scam a rich man and his niece, Lady Hideko, out of their vast wealth. In order to sway Hideko into marrying him, Count Fujiwara installs Sook Hee as Hideko's handmaiden, the plan being to steal Hideko's large inheritance and have her committed involuntarily in a mental institution once he's done.
The Handmaiden's categorization as an erotic thriller should help you understand what to expect, but it's a hard movie to pin down so succinctly. Its tone shifts between dark, violent, vengeful, lustful, and even sweetly romantic, as moments of tenderness between Sook Hee and Hideko quickly give way to various types of horror and manipulation.
Like Park's other work—the grim Oldboy, for example—The Handmaiden is a movie that deserves a content warning for its intense depictions of sex and death. To explain exactly why it warrants those warnings would spoil the experience too much; instead, what you should know is that The Handmaiden is, at times, hard to watch but even harder to predict.
If you go into The Handmaiden thinking you know how it will play out, you'll most likely be wrong. The plot unravels in three parts, and like Parasite, as The Handmaiden builds, it subverts everything you thought you knew. What seems like a straightforward scam becomes something much more grisly and layered: full of sexual perversion, tension, and deceit. It's easy to look past just how depraved it is, though, because everything is so decadently beautiful.
To frame Park's work only in the context of Bong's would be a disservice to both directors. The two dominate Korean cinema, which The Guardian's Phil Hoad recently called "the world's best." As he wrote prior to Bong's big wins, Korean cinema has "become pound-for-pound the most dynamic and original film industry on the planet" over the past two decades, and its recognition state-side is long overdue.
Still, it's clear that Parasite's success has people talking about Korean cinema and figuring out what other films they should explore, and that makes it the perfect time to revisit just how much more attention The Handmaiden really deserved. Amazon Video, where the film is currently streaming, has been promoting it heavily to plenty of excitement on Twitter.
The Handmaiden is a movie we should all have heard more about three years ago, but maybe now's our chance to revisit just how good it was. At the very least, if you're burnt out on Valentine's Day rom-coms, well, let The Handmaiden be the answer to your anti-romance needs.